Hey N97, let's be friends (its not me, its you)

This post has been an idea in my head, bouncing around while I debate what to write about my Nokia N97. I was hoping I could tell you that the phone performs even better than I expected, satisfies all my needs and is undoubtedly the best phone ever … like, ever! Sadly, I can’t do that. I should probably begin with what my expectations are of my device. For one thing I want my smart device to plug into my contacts and calendar and sync with them as effortlessly as is possible. I don’t want to change processes that work well for me although I am open to new and better ways of working.

The Nokia N97 is a great smartphone and Internet device, it really is. It is the top of the current Nokia range and can do just about everything smartphones these days can do (and more) in terms of raw functionality. At the same time, the N97 is somewhat disappointing to me given my initial expectations of the device. I was hoping the N97 would become my one device that I carry around with me and which takes care of my communications, Internet connectivity and media needs. It only really caters for some of these needs adequately.

I am not going to talk too much about the N97’s UI. It isn’t great, there’s no denying it and anyone at Nokia or Symbian you speak to will likely agree that the current S60 user interface is dated and due for an overhaul (expected around 2011). The iPhone 3Gs and Android devices have far more modern interfaces that look terrific. All of this emphasis on the UI did get me wondering about the underlying Symbian operating system and from what I was told, it remains a robust and effective mobile operating system today.

I decided to approach this post from the perspective of an N97 user. I don’t own an iPhone and as I pointed out previously, I have always been a Nokia user. I am also a Mac user and that tends to skew the experience for me. I think I would have a better overall experience of the N97 and Nokia devices if I was a Windows user. It almost goes without saying that I don’t know everything about my N97 and what I can do with it so you may find yourself going “Yes, but, if you look at this menu and click on this setting you can do that thing …” in which case, please comment below or drop me a note and correct me.

Pros and Cons, briefly

To begin with there are a number of things I like about the N97:

  • the slide-out keyboard is pretty good although the angle seems just a little off to me;
  • the camera is the best I’ve had on a mobile phone and takes fantastic photos in decent lighting (although not so great photos in dim to low light);
  • Maps 3 which beats the pants off Google Maps on this device (this is one of the applications I would miss most if I ever stopped using a Nokia device);
  • the over-the-air software update application (not news to iPhone users but this is a boon for Mac users who can’t use Ovi Suite yet); and
  • the widget framework.

Unfortunately the N97 starts to lose its sheen when I get down to the nitty gritty of my day to day experiences. Unlike my E71 and a host of other Nokia devices, there is still no iSync plugin which means I can’t sync my N97 with my MacBook and update my contacts list and calendar on my device and vice versa. This presents a challenge because much of what I do each day and with my phone depends on up to date contacts and calendar information. I haven’t actually sync’d my N97 since I got it and although there are options available, none of them really seem to put a smile on my face. I have this nagging sense that to truly commit to the N97 I would have to make some serious changes to my productivity processes and systems.

Messaging, messaging

The phone’s Mail for Exchange support does go a way towards alleviating the pain of not being able to sync with my MacBook and I’ve thought about ways everything could just sync with the Google cloud where much of my stuff is. It is do-able, I imagine, but I just haven’t had the time to sit and figure it all out and get it working. The last time I used Mail for Exchange was on the pre-release N97 I used at the end of May/beginning of June and that made quite a mess of my calendars and contacts so I need to psych myself up to try it all again.

The built in email application is pretty basic so one of the first things I did was replace it with Nokia Messaging. That was a bad idea. Nokia Messaging has an improved interface but it installs to the phone memory (distinct from the 32GB drive) automatically and without giving you the option to install it elsewhere. This is a problem because it doesn’t take a lot of mail to take up all the available phone memory and start crashing the device. To add to that pain, I also received an email from Nokia informing me that my Nokia Messaging subscription had been terminated because one of my devices was transferred to someone else. That is a great security measure but I don’t know which device is the culprit. In any event, I had by that time decided to kick Nokia Messaging and go back to the default. Thankfully Nafisa reminded me about the Gmail app for the N97 and that works pretty well for me.

My new media device? And what about all those apps?

I was also hoping the N97 could take over from my iPod as my primary media device and while Nokia Multimedia Transfer does a decent job transferring content across using a sort of iTunes bridge and the Nokia music app works well, the device doesn’t so much sync as shuffle media around. I listen to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks and I haven’t figured out yet if my N97 would carry on from where I left off, leave a marker of some kind where I stop and then allow iTunes to continue from there. I have transferred some media to my N97 and the 32GB of drive space does come in handy!

When it comes to applications I accept that the iPhone and Android devices have better applications, for the most part. Just the same I can still do what I need to do with my N97 and the apps that are available. The widget framework is a little buggy and stops working if it gets annoyed with me but turning the phone off and on a couple times seems to sort that out. The Ovi Store has great potential and I’ve had pretty good experiences downloading and installing apps on my phone using the Ovi Store app. In fact the first app I bought through the Ovi Store was Gravity which is a great Twitter app that really is worth €10 to me. The Ovi Store doesn’t have nearly the variety of great apps that the iTunes store does but I think it will improve in time.

There are other things that niggle (the battery indicator can be a big fat liar and I often find myself with no charge left in the middle of something) and just as many aspects of the phone that I really like (the swooshy call answer thing is nice, as is the touch screen experience – even if it isn’t as good as the iPhone with its capacitive touchscreen). If you look at the N97 in isolation, it is a great device. It really is. When I look at the N97 as an essential device in my day to day life, I can’t help but still feel a little let down. The experience isn’t as good as the hype I built up for myself in the last few months.

Alternatives, for what they are worth

When I look at the iPhone and Android phones like the HTC Hero, I become even more aware of what is missing from the N97 in terms of the general user experience. It does go beyond
the UI though. I don’t see the N97 ever integrating with my Mac nearly as well as the iPhone will. That level of integration is important because my workflows begin with my Mac and move outwards. Using Google services for email, calendaring and so on does make it easier to work more productively but the inability to sync my calendars the way I have set them up, for example, gets in the way. In fact, when I consider the services that are most important to how I work, Android devices take on considerable appeal but I do ask myself whether going with an Android device wouldn’t be committing to another platform and modus operandi that is dependent on my using Google services.

As well as the iPhone will integrate with my workflows, I can’t help but feel that I would be sacrificing a number of things that my N97 does well and that I have come to rely on. Nokia Maps 3 with its guidance is an example of that functionality the iPhone just can’t match just yet. That being said there are more and more apps for the iPhone and probably also for Android that enhance those devices to a point where they will do everything the N97 does and more.

Bottom line

Despite all its deficiencies in my eyes, I like the N97. It is a well built device and it generally works well for me. There are probably a number of ways I could tweak the device to fit better into my workflows which I am simply not aware of so any criticism should be weighed accordingly. Then again, there are things that I just can’t do with an N97 that I can do very well with an iPhone or perhaps an Android phone. Using an Android device would ironically mean I would need to change how I do some of the things I do anyway but the growing number of quality apps and the tight integration with the Google services I use could make up for that. The iPhone would undoubtedly fit the best with my MacBook and be the closest to the one converged device I long for but that does come with sacrifices.

For now I am happy to use my N97 and explore ways I can use it more effectively. There are even times I long for my E71 and its slim form factor. On the whole, though, this is a solid phone and it does what I need to do every day. What it doesn’t really do for me is introduce me to even better ways of doing things or better things I can do to be more productive. That potential can be pretty valuable too.

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